“Begin at the beginning...” Colossians 1:1-14
In Lewis Carroll’s classic story, Alice in Wonderland, the King of Hearts gives the following directive to the White Rabbit, “begin at the beginning and go on until you come to the end, then stop.” There is something obvious about this statement, yet there are some principles that are so basic that we seem to forget or ignore them. “Begin at the beginning” is just such a principle. We have a tendency to want to rush past the beginning to we can get to the “good part.” This is probably a fine strategy if you’re watching your favorite movie for the tenth time. It is a poor strategy for reading the word of God.
The King of Heart’s directive is especially important when it comes to reading the epistles (or letters), like Colossians. Begin at the beginning. Colossians, like the other letters that make up our New Testament, begins with a salutation or greeting. It is worth spending some time with these first two verses. There we learn that the senders are Paul and Timothy (Col. 1:1). Paul is named first and he is identified as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (Col. 1:1). There is some dispute among scholars as to whether Paul wrote Colossians, but v. 1 suggests that the authority for the letter and all it communicates is grounded in Paul’s apostolic role as one commissioned and sent by God. In v. 2, we learn that the letter was sent to “the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae”. The CEB says the letter is to “the holy and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae.” Paul’s characterization of the Christians in Colossae as “holy and faithful” or as faithful saints emphasizes their chosenness by God. Even as Paul names that they are a people whose faith and character are to be commended, he encourages them to continue on this path. The greeting concludes with “grace to you and peace from God our Father” (Col. 1:2). Paul deviates from the typical pattern of a letter of his time, which makes clear that he is referring to the grace of Christ. Instead of including a wish for health as Paul’s contemporaries would have, he wishes them “peace.” In light of Paul’s heritage, the Jewish notion of shalom likely informs the meaning of “peace” in v. 2. Paul wishes them a kind of wholeness that characterizes every aspect of life, not just their internal state, but their social, political, and economic condition as well.
The greeting is followed by thanksgiving and prayer where Paul relays what he has been thanking God for and how he has been praying for them. Paul thanks God for their faith in Christ Jesus and the love they have for one another, both of which are grounded in “the hope laid up for you in heaven” (Col. 1:5). This is a community in which the gospel is bearing fruit (Col. 1:6). Paul builds up the community by telling them that he has heard about the steadfast faith in Christ that they are exhibiting and he is thankful to God for all this community has become.
Paul further encourages the community by telling them that he regularly prays that they would be “filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col. 1:9). The result of such knowledge of God is to be a life that is pleasing to God, which yields further growth in knowledge of the Lord. This may seem like circular logic at first glance, but theologian, N.T. Wright notes that it presents a picture of growth in the Christian life as a spiral. Paul prays that the people will increase in knowledge of God’s will, which will cause them to lead lives that “bear fruit in every good work,” which will lead to knowledge of God. It is not a circular process because one does not simply return to where they began. Rather, living a life that bears fruit leads to a new and deeper knowledge of God. Wright puts it this way, “understanding will fuel holiness; holiness will deepen understanding.”
The first reading in our series on Colossians ends with Paul’s prayer the people would be given strength, but this is no ordinary strength. Paul prays for strength that comes from God’s “glorious power” (Col. 1:11). Paul seems to know what we know to be true -- life is hard. The kind of strength that will come only from God is necessary, but not for begrudging survival. Instead, Paul prays that the power of God would enable them to be “prepared to endure everything with patience,” all the while giving joyful thanks to God (Col. 1:11-12). The source of this strength is the one who “rescued us from the power of darkness” and flung the doors wide open, welcoming us into the “kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13).
Look at all we would have missed if we had ignored the White Rabbit’s advice to “begin at the beginning.”
-Pastor Teesha Hadra